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The Club of Queer Trades by G.K.Chesterton

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The Club of Queer Trades

by G.K.Chesterton

Chapter 1

The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown

Rabelais, or his wild illustrator Gustave Dore, must have had
something to do with the designing of the things called flats in
England and America. There is something entirely Gargantuan in the
idea of economising space by piling houses on top of each other,
front doors and all. And in the chaos and complexity of those
perpendicular streets anything may dwell or happen, and it is in
one of them, I believe, that the inquirer may find the offices of
the Club of Queer Trades. It may be thought at the first glance
that the name would attract and startle the passer-by, but nothing
attracts or startles in these dim immense hives. The passer-by is
only looking for his own melancholy destination, the Montenegro
Shipping Agency or the London office of the Rutland Sentinel, and
passes through the twilight passages as one passes through the
twilight corridors of a dream. If the Thugs set up a Strangers'
Assassination Company in one of the great buildings in Norfolk
Street, and sent in a mild man in spectacles to answer inquiries,
no inquiries would be made. And the Club of Queer Trades reigns in
a great edifice hidden like a fossil in a mighty cliff of fossils.

The nature of this society, such as we afterwards discovered it to
be, is soon and simply told. It is an eccentric and Bohemian Club,
of which the absolute condition of membership lies in this, that
the candidate must have invented the method by which he earns his
living. It must be an entirely new trade. The exact definition of
this requirement is given in the two principal rules. First, it
must not be a mere application or variation of an existing trade.
Thus, for instance, the Club would not admit an insurance agent
simply because instead of insuring men's furniture against being
burnt in a fire, he insured, let us say, their trousers against
being torn by a mad dog. The principle (as Sir Bradcock
Burnaby-Bradcock, in the extraordinarily eloquent and soaring
speech to the club on the occasion of the question being raised in
the Stormby Smith affair, said wittily and keenly) is the same.
Secondly, the trade must be a genuine commercial source of income,
the support of its inventor. Thus the Club would not receive a man
simply because he chose to pass his days collecting broken sardine
tins, unless he could drive a roaring trade in them. Professor
Chick made that quite clear. And when one remembers what Professor
Chick's own new trade was, one doesn't know whether to laugh or

The discovery of this strange society was a curiously refreshing
thing; to realize that there were ten new trades in the world was
like looking at the first ship or the first plough. It made a man
feel what he should feel, that he was still in the childhood of
the world. That I should have come at last upon so singular a body
was, I may say without vanity, not altogether singular, for I have
a mania for belonging to as many societies as possible: I may be
said to collect clubs, and I have accumulated a vast and fantastic
variety of specimens ever since, in my audacious youth, I
collected the Athenaeum. At some future day, perhaps, I may tell
tales of some of the other bodies to which I have belonged. I will
recount the doings of the Dead Man's Shoes Society (that
superficially immoral, but darkly justifiable communion); I will
explain the curious origin of the Cat and Christian, the name of
which has been so shamefully misinterpreted; and the world shall
know at last why the Institute of Typewriters coalesced with the
Red Tulip League. Of the Ten Teacups, of course I dare not say a
word. The first of my revelations, at any rate, shall be concerned
with the Club of Queer Trades, which, as I have said, was one of
this class, one which I was almost bound to come across sooner or
later, because of my singular hobby. The wild youth of the
metropolis call me facetiously `The King of Clubs'. They also call
me `The Cherub', in allusion to the roseate and youthful
appearance I have presented in my declining years. I only hope the
spirits in the better world have as good dinners as I have. But
the finding of the Club of Queer Trades has one very curious thing
about it. The most curious thing about it is that it was not
discovered by me; it was discovered by my friend Basil Grant, a
star-gazer, a mystic, and a man who scarcely stirred out of his

Very few people knew anything of Basil; not because he was in the
least unsociable, for if a man out of the street had walked into
his rooms he would have kept him talking till morning. Few people
knew him, because, like all poets, he could do without them; he
welcomed a human face as he might welcome a sudden blend of colour
in a sunset; but he no more felt the need of going out to parties
than he felt the need of altering the sunset clouds. He lived in a
queer and comfortable garret in the roofs of Lambeth. He was
surrounded by a chaos of things that were in odd contrast to the
slums around him; old fantastic books, swords, armour--the whole
dust-hole of romanticism. But his face, amid all these quixotic
relics, appeared curiously keen and modern--a powerful, legal
face. And no one but I knew who he was.

Long ago as it is, everyone remembers the terrible and grotesque
scene that occurred in--, when one of the most acute and forcible
of the English judges suddenly went mad on the bench. I had my own
view of that occurrence; but about the facts themselves there is
no question at all. For some months, indeed for some years, people
had detected something curious in the judge's conduct. He seemed
to have lost interest in the law, in which he had been beyond
expression brilliant and terrible as a K.C., and to be occupied in
giving personal and moral advice to the people concerned. He
talked more like a priest or a doctor, and a very outspoken one at
that. The first thrill was probably given when he said to a man
who had attempted a crime of passion: "I sentence you to three
years imprisonment, under the firm, and solemn, and God-given
conviction, that what you require is three months at the seaside."
He accused criminals from the bench, not so much of their obvious
legal crimes, but of things that had never been heard of in a
court of justice, monstrous egoism, lack of humour, and morbidity
deliberately encouraged. Things came to a head in that celebrated
diamond case in which the Prime Minister himself, that brilliant
patrician, had to come forward, gracefully and reluctantly, to
give evidence against his valet. After the detailed life of the
household had been thoroughly exhibited, the judge requested the
Premier again to step forward, which he did with quiet dignity.
The judge then said, in a sudden, grating voice: "Get a new soul.
That thing's not fit for a dog. Get a new soul." All this, of
course, in the eyes of the sagacious, was premonitory of that
melancholy and farcical day when his wits actually deserted him
in open court. It was a libel case between two very eminent and
powerful financiers, against both of whom charges of considerable
defalcation were brought. The case was long and complex; the
advocates were long and eloquent; but at last, after weeks of
work and rhetoric, the time came for the great judge to give a
summing-up; and one of his celebrated masterpieces of lucidity
and pulverizing logic was eagerly looked for. He had spoken very
little during the prolonged affair, and he looked sad and lowering
at the end of it. He was silent for a few moments, and then burst
into a stentorian song. His remarks (as reported) were as follows:

"O Rowty-owty tiddly-owty Tiddly-owty tiddly-owty Highty-ighty
tiddly-ighty Tiddly-ighty ow."

He then retired from public life and took the garret in Lambeth.

I was sitting there one evening, about six o'clock, over a glass of
that gorgeous Burgundy which he kept behind a pile of black-letter
folios; he was striding about the room, fingering, after a habit of
his, one of the great swords in his collection; the red glare of
the strong fire struck his square features and his fierce grey
hair; his blue eyes were even unusually full of dreams, and he had
opened his mouth to speak dreamily, when the door was flung open,
and a pale, fiery man, with red hair and a huge furred overcoat,
swung himself panting into the room.

"Sorry to bother you, Basil," he gasped. "I took a liberty--made an
appointment here with a man--a client--in five minutes--I beg your
pardon, sir," and he gave me a bow of apology.

Basil smiled at me. "You didn't know," he said, "that I had a
practical brother. This is Rupert Grant, Esquire, who can and does
all there is to be done. Just as I was a failure at one thing, he
is a success at everything. I remember him as a journalist, a
house-agent, a naturalist, an inventor, a publisher, a
schoolmaster, a--what are you now, Rupert?"

"I am and have been for some time," said Rupert, with some dignity,
"a private detective, and there's my client."

A loud rap at the door had cut him short, and, on permission being
given, the door was thrown sharply open and a stout, dapper man
walked swiftly into the room, set his silk hat with a clap on the
table, and said, "Good evening, gentlemen," with a stress on the
last syllable that somehow marked him out as a martinet, military,
literary and social. He had a large head streaked with black and
grey, and an abrupt black moustache, which gave him a look of
fierceness which was contradicted by his sad sea-blue eyes.

Basil immediately said to me, "Let us come into the next room,
Gully," and was moving towards the door, but the stranger said:

"Not at all. Friends remain. Assistance possibly."

The moment I heard him speak I remembered who he was, a certain
Major Brown I had met years before in Basil's society. I had
forgotten altogether the black dandified figure and the large
solemn head, but I remembered the peculiar speech, which consisted
of only saying about a quarter of each sentence, and that sharply,
like the crack of a gun. I do not know, it may have come from
giving orders to troops.

Major Brown was a V.C., and an able and distinguished soldier, but
he was anything but a warlike person. Like many among the iron men
who recovered British India, he was a man with the natural beliefs
and tastes of an old maid. In his dress he was dapper and yet
demure; in his habits he was precise to the point of the exact
adjustment of a tea-cup. One enthusiasm he had, which was of the
nature of a religion--the cultivation of pansies. And when he
talked about his collection, his blue eyes glittered like a child's
at a new toy, the eyes that had remained untroubled when the troops
were roaring victory round Roberts at Candahar.

"Well, Major," said Rupert Grant, with a lordly heartiness,
flinging himself into a chair, "what is the matter with you?"

"Yellow pansies. Coal-cellar. P. G. Northover," said the Major,
with righteous indignation.

We glanced at each other with inquisitiveness. Basil, who had his
eyes shut in his abstracted way, said simply:

"I beg your pardon."

"Fact is. Street, you know, man, pansies. On wall. Death to me.
Something. Preposterous."

We shook our heads gently. Bit by bit, and mainly by the seemingly
sleepy assistance of Basil Grant, we pieced together the Major's
fragmentary, but excited narration. It would be infamous to submit
the reader to what we endured; therefore I will tell the story of
Major Brown in my own words. But the reader must imagine the
scene. The eyes of Basil closed as in a trance, after his habit,
and the eyes of Rupert and myself getting rounder and rounder as
we listened to one of the most astounding stories in the world,
from the lips of the little man in black, sitting bolt upright in
his chair and talking like a telegram.

Major Brown was, I have said, a successful soldier, but by no
means an enthusiastic one. So far from regretting his retirement
on half-pay, it was with delight that he took a small neat villa,
very like a doll's house, and devoted the rest of his life to
pansies and weak tea. The thought that battles were over when he
had once hung up his sword in the little front hall (along with
two patent stew-pots and a bad water-colour), and betaken himself
instead to wielding the rake in his little sunlit garden, was to
him like having come into a harbour in heaven. He was Dutch-like
and precise in his taste in gardening, and had, perhaps, some
tendency to drill his flowers like soldiers. He was one of those
men who are capable of putting four umbrellas in the stand rather
than three, so that two may lean one way and two another; he saw
life like a pattern in a freehand drawing-book. And assuredly he
would not have believed, or even understood, any one who had told
him that within a few yards of his brick paradise he was destined
to be caught in a whirlpool of incredible adventure, such as he
had never seen or dreamed of in the horrible jungle, or the heat
of battle.

One certain bright and windy afternoon, the Major, attired in his
usual faultless manner, had set out for his usual constitutional.
In crossing from one great residential thoroughfare to another, he
happened to pass along one of those aimless-looking lanes which lie
along the back-garden walls of a row of mansions, and which in
their empty and discoloured appearance give one an odd sensation as
of being behind the scenes of a theatre. But mean and sulky as the
scene might be in the eyes of most of us, it was not altogether so
in the Major's, for along the coarse gravel footway was coming a
thing which was to him what the passing of a religious procession
is to a devout person. A large, heavy man, with fish-blue eyes and
a ring of irradiating red beard, was pushing before him a barrow,
which was ablaze with incomparable flowers. There were splendid
specimens of almost every order, but the Major's own favourite
pansies predominated. The Major stopped and fell into conversation,
and then into bargaining. He treated the man after the manner of
collectors and other mad men, that is to say, he carefully and with
a sort of anguish selected the best roots from the less excellent,
praised some, disparaged others, made a subtle scale ranging from a
thrilling worth and rarity to a degraded insignificance, and then
bought them all. The man was just pushing off his barrow when he
stopped and came close to the Major.

"I'll tell you what, sir," he said. "If you're interested in them
things, you just get on to that wall."

"On the wall!" cried the scandalised Major, whose conventional soul
quailed within him at the thought of such fantastic trespass.

"Finest show of yellow pansies in England in that there garden,
sir," hissed the tempter. "I'll help you up, sir."

How it happened no one will ever know but that positive enthusiasm
of the Major's life triumphed over all its negative traditions,
and with an easy leap and swing that showed that he was in no need
of physical assistance, he stood on the wall at the end of the
strange garden. The second after, the flapping of the frock-coat
at his knees made him feel inexpressibly a fool. But the next
instant all such trifling sentiments were swallowed up by the most
appalling shock of surprise the old soldier had ever felt in all
his bold and wandering existence. His eyes fell upon the garden,
and there across a large bed in the centre of the lawn was a vast
pattern of pansies; they were splendid flowers, but for once it
was not their horticultural aspects that Major Brown beheld, for
the pansies were arranged in gigantic capital letters so as to
form the sentence:


A kindly looking old man, with white whiskers, was watering them.
Brown looked sharply back at the road behind him; the man with the
barrow had suddenly vanished. Then he looked again at the lawn
with its incredible inscription. Another man might have thought he
had gone mad, but Brown did not. When romantic ladies gushed over
his V.C. and his military exploits, he sometimes felt himself to
be a painfully prosaic person, but by the same token he knew he
was incurably sane. Another man, again, might have thought himself
a victim of a passing practical joke, but Brown could not easily
believe this. He knew from his own quaint learning that the garden
arrangement was an elaborate and expensive one; he thought it
extravagantly improbable that any one would pour out money like
water for a joke against him. Having no explanation whatever to
offer, he admitted the fact to himself, like a clear-headed man,
and waited as he would have done in the presence of a man with six

At this moment the stout old man with white whiskers looked up, and
the watering can fell from his hand, shooting a swirl of water down
the gravel path.

"Who on earth are you?" he gasped, trembling violently.

"I am Major Brown," said that individual, who was always cool in
the hour of action.

The old man gaped helplessly like some monstrous fish. At last he
stammered wildly, "Come down--come down here!"

"At your service," said the Major, and alighted at a bound on the
grass beside him, without disarranging his silk hat.

The old man turned his broad back and set off at a sort of waddling
run towards the house, followed with swift steps by the Major. His
guide led him through the back passages of a gloomy, but gorgeously
appointed house, until they reached the door of the front room.
Then the old man turned with a face of apoplectic terror dimly
showing in the twilight.

"For heaven's sake," he said, "don't mention jackals."

Then he threw open the door, releasing a burst of red lamplight,
and ran downstairs with a clatter.

The Major stepped into a rich, glowing room, full of red copper,
and peacock and purple hangings, hat in hand. He had the finest
manners in the world, and, though mystified, was not in the least
embarrassed to see that the only occupant was a lady, sitting by
the window, looking out.

"Madam," he said, bowing simply, "I am Major Brown."

"Sit down," said the lady; but she did not turn her head.

She was a graceful, green-clad figure, with fiery red hair and a
flavour of Bedford Park. "You have come, I suppose," she said
mournfully, "to tax me about the hateful title-deeds."

"I have come, madam," he said, "to know what is the matter. To know
why my name is written across your garden. Not amicably either."

He spoke grimly, for the thing had hit him. It is impossible to
describe the effect produced on the mind by that quiet and sunny
garden scene, the frame for a stunning and brutal personality.
The evening air was still, and the grass was golden in the place
where the little flowers he studied cried to heaven for his

"You know I must not turn round," said the lady; "every afternoon
till the stroke of six I must keep my face turned to the street."

Some queer and unusual inspiration made the prosaic soldier
resolute to accept these outrageous riddles without surprise.

"It is almost six," he said; and even as he spoke the barbaric
copper clock upon the wall clanged the first stroke of the hour.
At the sixth the lady sprang up and turned on the Major one of
the queerest and yet most attractive faces he had ever seen in
his life; open, and yet tantalising, the face of an elf.

"That makes the third year I have waited," she cried. "This is an
anniversary. The waiting almost makes one wish the frightful thing
would happen once and for all."

And even as she spoke, a sudden rending cry broke the stillness.
From low down on the pavement of the dim street (it was already
twilight) a voice cried out with a raucous and merciless

"Major Brown, Major Brown, where does the jackal dwell?"

Brown was decisive and silent in action. He strode to the front
door and looked out. There was no sign of life in the blue gloaming
of the street, where one or two lamps were beginning to light their
lemon sparks. On returning, he found the lady in green trembling.

"It is the end," she cried, with shaking lips; "it may be death for
both of us. Whenever--"

But even as she spoke her speech was cloven by another hoarse
proclamation from the dark street, again horribly articulate.

"Major Brown, Major Brown, how did the jackal die?"

Brown dashed out of the door and down the steps, but again he was
frustrated; there was no figure in sight, and the street was far
too long and empty for the shouter to have run away. Even the
rational Major was a little shaken as he returned in a certain time
to the drawing-room. Scarcely had he done so than the terrific
voice came:

"Major Brown, Major Brown, where did--"

Brown was in the street almost at a bound, and he was in time--in
time to see something which at first glance froze the blood. The
cries appeared to come from a decapitated head resting on the

The next moment the pale Major understood. It was the head of a
man thrust through the coal-hole in the street. The next moment,
again, it had vanished, and Major Brown turned to the lady.
"Where's your coal-cellar?" he said, and stepped out into the

She looked at him with wild grey eyes. "You will not go down," she
cried, "alone, into the dark hole, with that beast?"

"Is this the way?" replied Brown, and descended the kitchen stairs
three at a time. He flung open the door of a black cavity and
stepped in, feeling in his pocket for matches. As his right hand
was thus occupied, a pair of great slimy hands came out of the
darkness, hands clearly belonging to a man of gigantic stature,
and seized him by the back of the head. They forced him down, down
in the suffocating darkness, a brutal image of destiny. But the
Major's head, though upside down, was perfectly clear and
intellectual. He gave quietly under the pressure until he had slid
down almost to his hands and knees. Then finding the knees of the
invisible monster within a foot of him, he simply put out one of
his long, bony, and skilful hands, and gripping the leg by a
muscle pulled it off the ground and laid the huge living man, with
a crash, along the floor. He strove to rise, but Brown was on top
like a cat. They rolled over and over. Big as the man was, he had
evidently now no desire but to escape; he made sprawls hither and
thither to get past the Major to the door, but that tenacious
person had him hard by the coat collar and hung with the other
hand to a beam. At length there came a strain in holding back this
human bull, a strain under which Brown expected his hand to rend
and part from the arm. But something else rent and parted; and the
dim fat figure of the giant vanished out of the cellar, leaving
the torn coat in the Major's hand; the only fruit of his adventure
and the only clue to the mystery. For when he went up and out at
the front door, the lady, the rich hangings, and the whole
equipment of the house had disappeared. It had only bare boards
and whitewashed walls.

"The lady was in the conspiracy, of course," said Rupert, nodding.
Major Brown turned brick red. "I beg your pardon," he said, "I
think not."

Rupert raised his eyebrows and looked at him for a moment, but said
nothing. When next he spoke he asked:

"Was there anything in the pockets of the coat?"

"There was sevenpence halfpenny in coppers and a threepenny-bit,"
said the Major carefully; "there was a cigarette-holder, a piece of
string, and this letter," and he laid it on the table. It ran as

Dear Mr Plover,

I am annoyed to hear that some delay has occurred in the
arrangements re Major Brown. Please see that he is attacked as
per arrangement tomorrow The coal-cellar, of course.

Yours faithfully, P. G. Northover.

Rupert Grant was leaning forward listening with hawk-like eyes. He
cut in:

"Is it dated from anywhere?"

"No--oh, yes!" replied Brown, glancing upon the paper; "14 Tanner's
Court, North--"

Rupert sprang up and struck his hands together.

"Then why are we hanging here? Let's get along. Basil, lend me your

Basil was staring into the embers like a man in a trance; and it
was some time before he answered:

"I don't think you'll need it."

"Perhaps not," said Rupert, getting into his fur coat. "One never
knows. But going down a dark court to see criminals--"

"Do you think they are criminals?" asked his brother.

Rupert laughed stoutly. "Giving orders to a subordinate to strangle
a harmless stranger in a coal-cellar may strike you as a very
blameless experiment, but--"

"Do you think they wanted to strangle the Major?" asked Basil, in
the same distant and monotonous voice.

"My dear fellow, you've been asleep. Look at the letter."

"I am looking at the letter," said the mad judge calmly; though, as
a matter of fact, he was looking at the fire. "I don't think it's
the sort of letter one criminal would write to another."

"My dear boy, you are glorious," cried Rupert, turning round, with
laughter in his blue bright eyes. "Your methods amaze me. Why,
there is the letter. It is written, and it does give orders for a
crime. You might as well say that the Nelson Column was not at all
the sort of thing that was likely to be set up in Trafalgar

Basil Grant shook all over with a sort of silent laughter, but did
not otherwise move.

"That's rather good," he said; "but, of course, logic like that's
not what is really wanted. It's a question of spiritual atmosphere.
It's not a criminal letter."

"It is. It's a matter of fact," cried the other in an agony of

"Facts," murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off
animals, "how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly--in fact,
I'm off my head--but I never could believe in that man--what's his
name, in those capital stories?--Sherlock Holmes. Every detail
points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing.
Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands
of twigs on a tree. It's only the life of the tree that has unity
and goes up--only the green blood that springs, like a fountain,
at the stars."

"But what the deuce else can the letter be but criminal?"

"We have eternity to stretch our legs in," replied the mystic. "It
can be an infinity of things. I haven't seen any of them--I've
only seen the letter. I look at that, and say it's not criminal."

"Then what's the origin of it?"

"I haven't the vaguest idea."

"Then why don't you accept the ordinary explanation?"

Basil continued for a little to glare at the coals, and seemed
collecting his thoughts in a humble and even painful way. Then he

"Suppose you went out into the moonlight. Suppose you passed
through silent, silvery streets and squares until you came into an
open and deserted space, set with a few monuments, and you beheld
one dressed as a ballet girl dancing in the argent glimmer. And
suppose you looked, and saw it was a man disguised. And suppose
you looked again, and saw it was Lord Kitchener. What would you

He paused a moment, and went on:

"You could not adopt the ordinary explanation. The ordinary
explanation of putting on singular clothes is that you look nice
in them; you would not think that Lord Kitchener dressed up like a
ballet girl out of ordinary personal vanity. You would think it
much more likely that he inherited a dancing madness from a great
grandmother; or had been hypnotised at a seance; or threatened by
a secret society with death if he refused the ordeal. With
Baden-Powell, say, it might be a bet--but not with Kitchener. I
should know all that, because in my public days I knew him quite
well. So I know that letter quite well, and criminals quite well.
It's not a criminal's letter. It's all atmospheres." And he closed
his eyes and passed his hand over his forehead.

Rupert and the Major were regarding him with a mixture of respect
and pity. The former said

"Well, I'm going, anyhow, and shall continue to think--until your
spiritual mystery turns up--that a man who sends a note
recommending a crime, that is, actually a crime that is actually
carried out, at least tentatively, is, in all probability, a
little casual in his moral tastes. Can I have that revolver?"

"Certainly," said Basil, getting up. "But I am coming with you."
And he flung an old cape or cloak round him, and took a
sword-stick from the corner.

"You!" said Rupert, with some surprise, "you scarcely ever leave
your hole to look at anything on the face of the earth."

Basil fitted on a formidable old white hat.

"I scarcely ever," he said, with an unconscious and colossal
arrogance, "hear of anything on the face of the earth that I do
not understand at once, without going to see it."

And he led the way out into the purple night.

We four swung along the flaring Lambeth streets, across Westminster
Bridge, and along the Embankment in the direction of that part of
Fleet Street which contained Tanner's Court. The erect, black
figure of Major Brown, seen from behind, was a quaint contrast to
the hound-like stoop and flapping mantle of young Rupert Grant, who
adopted, with childlike delight, all the dramatic poses of the
detective of fiction. The finest among his many fine qualities was
his boyish appetite for the colour and poetry of London. Basil, who
walked behind, with his face turned blindly to the stars, had the
look of a somnambulist.

Rupert paused at the corner of Tanner's Court, with a quiver of
delight at danger, and gripped Basil's revolver in his great-coat

"Shall we go in now?" he asked.

"Not get police?" asked Major Brown, glancing sharply up and down
the street.

"I am not sure," answered Rupert, knitting his brows. "Of course,
it's quite clear, the thing's all crooked. But there are three of
us, and--"

"I shouldn't get the police," said Basil in a queer voice. Rupert
glanced at him and stared hard.

"Basil," he cried, "you're trembling. What's the matter--are you

"Cold, perhaps," said the Major, eyeing him. There was no doubt
that he was shaking.

At last, after a few moments' scrutiny, Rupert broke into a curse.

"You're laughing," he cried. "I know that confounded, silent,
shaky laugh of yours. What the deuce is the amusement, Basil?
Here we are, all three of us, within a yard of a den of

"But I shouldn't call the police," said Basil. "We four heroes
are quite equal to a host," and he continued to quake with his
mysterious mirth.

Rupert turned with impatience and strode swiftly down the court,
the rest of us following. When he reached the door of No. 14 he
turned abruptly, the revolver glittering in his hand.

"Stand close," he said in the voice of a commander. "The scoundrel
may be attempting an escape at this moment. We must fling open the
door and rush in."

The four of us cowered instantly under the archway, rigid, except
for the old judge and his convulsion of merriment.

"Now," hissed Rupert Grant, turning his pale face and burning eyes
suddenly over his shoulder, "when I say `Four', follow me with a
rush. If I say `Hold him', pin the fellows down, whoever they are.
If I say `Stop', stop. I shall say that if there are more than
three. If they attack us I shall empty my revolver on them. Basil,
have your sword-stick ready. Now--one, two three, four!"

With the sound of the word the door burst open, and we fell into
the room like an invasion, only to stop dead.

The room, which was an ordinary and neatly appointed office,
appeared, at the first glance, to be empty. But on a second and
more careful glance, we saw seated behind a very large desk with
pigeonholes and drawers of bewildering multiplicity, a small man
with a black waxed moustache, and the air of a very average clerk,
writing hard. He looked up as we came to a standstill.

"Did you knock?" he asked pleasantly. "I am sorry if I did not
hear. What can I do for you?"

There was a doubtful pause, and then, by general consent, the Major
himself, the victim of the outrage, stepped forward.

The letter was in his hand, and he looked unusually grim.

"Is your name P. G. Northover?" he asked.

"That is my name," replied the other, smiling.

"I think," said Major Brown, with an increase in the dark glow of
his face, "that this letter was written by you." And with a loud
clap he struck open the letter on the desk with his clenched fist.
The man called Northover looked at it with unaffected interest and
merely nodded.

"Well, sir," said the Major, breathing hard, "what about that?"

"What about it, precisely," said the man with the moustache.

"I am Major Brown," said that gentleman sternly.

Northover bowed. "Pleased to meet you, sir. What have you to say to

"Say!" cried the Major, loosing a sudden tempest; "why, I want this
confounded thing settled. I want--"

"Certainly, sir," said Northover, jumping up with a slight
elevation of the eyebrows. "Will you take a chair for a moment."
And he pressed an electric bell just above him, which thrilled and
tinkled in a room beyond. The Major put his hand on the back of the
chair offered him, but stood chafing and beating the floor with his
polished boot.

The next moment an inner glass door was opened, and a fair, weedy,
young man, in a frock-coat, entered from within.

"Mr Hopson," said Northover, "this is Major Brown. Will you please
finish that thing for him I gave you this morning and bring it in?"

"Yes, sir," said Mr Hopson, and vanished like lightning.

"You will excuse me, gentlemen," said the egregious Northover, with
his radiant smile, "if I continue to work until Mr Hopson is ready.
I have some books that must be cleared up before I get away on my
holiday tomorrow. And we all like a whiff of the country, don't we?
Ha! ha!"

The criminal took up his pen with a childlike laugh, and a
silence ensued; a placid and busy silence on the part of Mr P. G.
Northover; a raging silence on the part of everybody else.

At length the scratching of Northover's pen in the stillness was
mingled with a knock at the door, almost simultaneous with the
turning of the handle, and Mr Hopson came in again with the same
silent rapidity, placed a paper before his principal, and
disappeared again.

The man at the desk pulled and twisted his spiky moustache for a
few moments as he ran his eye up and down the paper presented to
him. He took up his pen, with a slight, instantaneous frown, and
altered something, muttering--"Careless." Then he read it again
with the same impenetrable reflectiveness, and finally handed it
to the frantic Brown, whose hand was beating the devil's tattoo
on the back of the chair.

"I think you will find that all right, Major," he said briefly.

The Major looked at it; whether he found it all right or not will
appear later, but he found it like this:

Major Brown to P. G. Northover. L s. d.
January 1, to account rendered 5 6 0
May 9, to potting and embedding of zoo pansies 2 0 0
To cost of trolley with flowers 0 15 0
To hiring of man with trolley 0 5 0
To hire of house and garden for one day 1 0 0
To furnishing of room in peacock curtains, copper ornaments, etc. 3 0 0
To salary of Miss Jameson 1 0 0
To salary of Mr Plover 1 0 0
Total L14 6 0
A Remittance will oblige.

"What," said Brown, after a dead pause, and with eyes that seemed
slowly rising out of his head, "What in heaven's name is this?"

"What is it?" repeated Northover, cocking his eyebrow with
amusement. "It's your account, of course."

"My account!" The Major's ideas appeared to be in a vague stampede.
"My account! And what have I got to do with it?"

"Well," said Northover, laughing outright, "naturally I prefer you
to pay it."

The Major's hand was still resting on the back of the chair as the
words came. He scarcely stirred otherwise, but he lifted the chair
bodily into the air with one hand and hurled it at Northover's

The legs crashed against the desk, so that Northover only got a
blow on the elbow as he sprang up with clenched fists, only to be
seized by the united rush of the rest of us. The chair had fallen
clattering on the empty floor.

"Let me go, you scamps," he shouted. "Let me--"

"Stand still," cried Rupert authoritatively. "Major Brown's action
is excusable. The abominable crime you have attempted--"

"A customer has a perfect right," said Northover hotly, "to
question an alleged overcharge, but, confound it all, not to throw

"What, in God's name, do you mean by your customers and
overcharges?" shrieked Major Brown, whose keen feminine nature,
steady in pain or danger, became almost hysterical in the presence
of a long and exasperating mystery. "Who are you? I've never seen
you or your insolent tomfool bills. I know one of your cursed
brutes tried to choke me--"

"Mad," said Northover, gazing blankly round; "all of them mad. I
didn't know they travelled in quartettes."

"Enough of this prevarication," said Rupert; "your crimes are
discovered. A policeman is stationed at the corner of the court.
Though only a private detective myself, I will take the
responsibility of telling you that anything you say--"

"Mad," repeated Northover, with a weary air.

And at this moment, for the first time, there struck in among them
the strange, sleepy voice of Basil Grant.

"Major Brown," he said, "may I ask you a question?"

The Major turned his head with an increased bewilderment.

"You?" he cried; "certainly, Mr Grant."

"Can you tell me," said the mystic, with sunken head and lowering
brow, as he traced a pattern in the dust with his sword-stick,
"can you tell me what was the name of the man who lived in your
house before you?"

The unhappy Major was only faintly more disturbed by this last and
futile irrelevancy, and he answered vaguely:

"Yes, I think so; a man named Gurney something--a name with a
hyphen--Gurney-Brown; that was it."

"And when did the house change hands?" said Basil, looking up
sharply. His strange eyes were burning brilliantly.

"I came in last month," said the Major.

And at the mere word the criminal Northover suddenly fell into his
great office chair and shouted with a volleying laughter.

"Oh! it's too perfect--it's too exquisite," he gasped, beating the
arms with his fists. He was laughing deafeningly; Basil Grant was
laughing voicelessly; and the rest of us only felt that our heads
were like weathercocks in a whirlwind.

"Confound it, Basil," said Rupert, stamping. "If you don't want me
to go mad and blow your metaphysical brains out, tell me what all
this means."

Northover rose.

"Permit me, sir, to explain," he said. "And, first of all, permit
me to apologize to you, Major Brown, for a most abominable and
unpardonable blunder, which has caused you menace and
inconvenience, in which, if you will allow me to say so, you have
behaved with astonishing courage and dignity. Of course you need
not trouble about the bill. We will stand the loss." And, tearing
the paper across, he flung the halves into the waste-paper basket
and bowed.

Poor Brown's face was still a picture of distraction. "But I don't
even begin to understand," he cried. "What bill? what blunder?
what loss?"

Mr P. G. Northover advanced in the centre of the room,
thoughtfully, and with a great deal of unconscious dignity. On
closer consideration, there were apparent about him other things
beside a screwed moustache, especially a lean, sallow face,
hawk-like, and not without a careworn intelligence. Then he looked
up abruptly.

"Do you know where you are, Major?" he said.

"God knows I don't," said the warrior, with fervour.

"You are standing," replied Northover, "in the office of the
Adventure and Romance Agency, Limited."

"And what's that?" blankly inquired Brown.

The man of business leaned over the back of the chair, and fixed
his dark eyes on the other's face.

"Major," said he, "did you ever, as you walked along the empty
street upon some idle afternoon, feel the utter hunger for
something to happen--something, in the splendid words of Walt
Whitman: `Something pernicious and dread; something far removed
from a puny and pious life; something unproved; something in a
trance; something loosed from its anchorage, and driving free.'
Did you ever feel that?"

"Certainly not," said the Major shortly.

"Then I must explain with more elaboration," said Mr Northover,
with a sigh. "The Adventure and Romance Agency has been started to
meet a great modern desire. On every side, in conversation and in
literature, we hear of the desire for a larger theatre of events
for something to waylay us and lead us splendidly astray. Now the
man who feels this desire for a varied life pays a yearly or a
quarterly sum to the Adventure and Romance Agency; in return, the
Adventure and Romance Agency undertakes to surround him with
startling and weird events. As a man is leaving his front door, an
excited sweep approaches him and assures him of a plot against his
life; he gets into a cab, and is driven to an opium den; he
receives a mysterious telegram or a dramatic visit, and is
immediately in a vortex of incidents. A very picturesque and moving
story is first written by one of the staff of distinguished
novelists who are at present hard at work in the adjoining room.
Yours, Major Brown (designed by our Mr Grigsby), I consider
peculiarly forcible and pointed; it is almost a pity you did not
see the end of it. I need scarcely explain further the monstrous
mistake. Your predecessor in your present house, Mr Gurney-Brown,
was a subscriber to our agency, and our foolish clerks, ignoring
alike the dignity of the hyphen and the glory of military rank,
positively imagined that Major Brown and Mr Gurney-Brown were the
same person. Thus you were suddenly hurled into the middle of
another man's story."

"How on earth does the thing work?" asked Rupert Grant, with bright
and fascinated eyes.

"We believe that we are doing a noble work," said Northover
warmly. "It has continually struck us that there is no element in
modern life that is more lamentable than the fact that the modern
man has to seek all artistic existence in a sedentary state. If he
wishes to float into fairyland, he reads a book; if he wishes to
dash into the thick of battle, he reads a book; if he wishes to
soar into heaven, he reads a book; if he wishes to slide down the
banisters, he reads a book. We give him these visions, but we give
him exercise at the same time, the necessity of leaping from wall
to wall, of fighting strange gentlemen, of running down long
streets from pursuers--all healthy and pleasant exercises. We give
him a glimpse of that great morning world of Robin Hood or the
Knights Errant, when one great game was played under the splendid
sky. We give him back his childhood, that godlike time when we can
act stories, be our own heroes, and at the same instant dance and

Basil gazed at him curiously. The most singular psychological
discovery had been reserved to the end, for as the little business
man ceased speaking he had the blazing eyes of a fanatic.

Major Brown received the explanation with complete simplicity and
good humour.

"Of course; awfully dense, sir," he said. "No doubt at all, the
scheme excellent. But I don't think--" He paused a moment, and
looked dreamily out of the window. "I don't think you will find me
in it. Somehow, when one's seen--seen the thing itself, you
know--blood and men screaming, one feels about having a little
house and a little hobby; in the Bible, you know, `There remaineth
a rest'."

Northover bowed. Then after a pause he said:

"Gentlemen, may I offer you my card. If any of the rest of you
desire, at any time, to communicate with me, despite Major Brown's
view of the matter--"

"I should be obliged for your card, sir," said the Major, in his
abrupt but courteous voice. "Pay for chair."

The agent of Romance and Adventure handed his card, laughing.

It ran, "P. G. Northover, B.A., C.Q.T., Adventure and Romance
Agency, 14 Tanner's Court, Fleet Street."

"What on earth is "C.QT."?" asked Rupert Grant, looking over the
Major's shoulder.

"Don't you know?" returned Northover. "Haven't you ever heard of
the Club of Queer Trades?"

"There seems to be a confounded lot of funny things we haven't
heard of," said the little Major reflectively. "What's this one?"

"The Club of Queer Trades is a society consisting exclusively of
people who have invented some new and curious way of making money.
I was one of the earliest members."

"You deserve to be," said Basil, taking up his great white hat,
with a smile, and speaking for the last time that evening.

When they had passed out the Adventure and Romance agent wore a
queer smile, as he trod down the fire and locked up his desk. "A
fine chap, that Major; when one hasn't a touch of the poet one
stands some chance of being a poem. But to think of such a
clockwork little creature of all people getting into the nets of
one of Grigsby's tales," and he laughed out aloud in the silence.

Just as the laugh echoed away, there came a sharp knock at the
door. An owlish head, with dark moustaches, was thrust in, with
deprecating and somewhat absurd inquiry.

"What! back again, Major?" cried Northover in surprise. "What can
I do for you?"

The Major shuffled feverishly into the room.

"It's horribly absurd," he said. "Something must have got started
in me that I never knew before. But upon my soul I feel the most
desperate desire to know the end of it all."

"The end of it all?"

"Yes," said the Major. "`Jackals', and the title-deeds, and `Death
to Major Brown'."

The agent's face grew grave, but his eyes were amused.

"I am terribly sorry, Major," said he, "but what you ask is
impossible. I don't know any one I would sooner oblige than you;
but the rules of the agency are strict. The Adventures are
confidential; you are an outsider; I am not allowed to let you
know an inch more than I can help. I do hope you understand--"

"There is no one," said Brown, "who understands discipline better
than I do. Thank you very much. Good night."

And the little man withdrew for the last time.

He married Miss Jameson, the lady with the red hair and the green
garments. She was an actress, employed (with many others) by the
Romance Agency; and her marriage with the prim old veteran caused
some stir in her languid and intellectualized set. She always
replied very quietly that she had met scores of men who acted
splendidly in the charades provided for them by Northover, but that
she had only met one man who went down into a coal-cellar when he
really thought it contained a murderer.

The Major and she are living as happily as birds, in an absurd
villa, and the former has taken to smoking. Otherwise he is
unchanged--except, perhaps, there are moments when, alert and full
of feminine unselfishness as the Major is by nature, he falls into
a trance of abstraction. Then his wife recognizes with a concealed
smile, by the blind look in his blue eyes, that he is wondering
what were the title-deeds, and why he was not allowed to mention
jackals. But, like so many old soldiers, Brown is religious, and
believes that he will realize the rest of those purple adventures
in a better world.

Chapter 2

The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation

Basil Grant and I were talking one day in what is perhaps the most
perfect place for talking on earth--the top of a tolerably deserted
tramcar. To talk on the top of a hill is superb, but to talk on the
top of a flying hill is a fairy tale.

The vast blank space of North London was flying by; the very pace
gave us a sense of its immensity and its meanness. It was, as it
were, a base infinitude, a squalid eternity, and we felt the real
horror of the poor parts of London, the horror that is so totally
missed and misrepresented by the sensational novelists who depict
it as being a matter of narrow streets, filthy houses, criminals
and maniacs, and dens of vice. In a narrow street, in a den of
vice, you do not expect civilization, you do not expect order. But
the horror of this was the fact that there was civilization, that
there was order, but that civilisation only showed its morbidity,
and order only its monotony. No one would say, in going through a
criminal slum, "I see no statues. I notice no cathedrals." But here
there were public buildings; only they were mostly lunatic asylums.
Here there were statues; only they were mostly statues of railway
engineers and philanthropists--two dingy classes of men united by
their common contempt for the people. Here there were churches;
only they were the churches of dim and erratic sects, Agapemonites
or Irvingites. Here, above all, there were broad roads and vast
crossings and tramway lines and hospitals and all the real marks of
civilization. But though one never knew, in one sense, what one
would see next, there was one thing we knew we should not
see--anything really great, central, of the first class, anything
that humanity had adored. And with revulsion indescribable our
emotions returned, I think, to those really close and crooked
entries, to those really mean streets, to those genuine slums which
lie round the Thames and the City, in which nevertheless a real
possibility remains that at any chance corner the great cross of
the great cathedral of Wren may strike down the street like a

"But you must always remember also," said Grant to me, in his heavy
abstracted way, when I had urged this view, "that the very vileness
of the life of these ordered plebeian places bears witness to the
victory of the human soul. I agree with you. I agree that they have
to live in something worse than barbarism. They have to live in a
fourth-rate civilization. But yet I am practically certain that the
majority of people here are good people. And being good is an
adventure far more violent and daring than sailing round the world.

"Go on," I said.

No answer came.

"Go on," I said, looking up.

The big blue eyes of Basil Grant were standing out of his head and
he was paying no attention to me. He was staring over the side of
the tram.

"What is the matter?" I asked, peering over also.

"It is very odd," said Grant at last, grimly, "that I should have
been caught out like this at the very moment of my optimism. I said
all these people were good, and there is the wickedest man in

"Where?" I asked, leaning over further, "where?"

"Oh, I was right enough," he went on, in that strange continuous
and sleepy tone which always angered his hearers at acute moments,
"I was right enough when I said all these people were good. They
are heroes; they are saints. Now and then they may perhaps steal a
spoon or two; they may beat a wife or two with the poker. But they
are saints all the same; they are angels; they are robed in white;
they are clad with wings and haloes--at any rate compared to that

"Which man?" I cried again, and then my eye caught the figure at
which Basil's bull's eyes were glaring.

He was a slim, smooth person, passing very quickly among the
quickly passing crowd, but though there was nothing about him
sufficient to attract a startled notice, there was quite enough to
demand a curious consideration when once that notice was attracted.
He wore a black top-hat, but there was enough in it of those
strange curves whereby the decadent artist of the eighties tried to
turn the top-hat into something as rhythmic as an Etruscan vase.
His hair, which was largely grey, was curled with the instinct of
one who appreciated the gradual beauty of grey and silver. The rest
of his face was oval and, I thought, rather Oriental; he had two
black tufts of moustache.

"What has he done?" I asked.

"I am not sure of the details," said Grant, "but his besetting sin
is a desire to intrigue to the disadvantage of others. Probably he
has adopted some imposture or other to effect his plan."

"What plan?" I asked. "If you know all about him, why don't you
tell me why he is the wickedest man in England? What is his name?"

Basil Grant stared at me for some moments.

"I think you've made a mistake in my meaning," he said. "I don't
know his name. I never saw him before in my life."

"Never saw him before!" I cried, with a kind of anger; "then what
in heaven's name do you mean by saying that he is the wickedest man
in England?"

"I meant what I said," said Basil Grant calmly. "The moment I saw
that man, I saw all these people stricken with a sudden and
splendid innocence. I saw that while all ordinary poor men in the
streets were being themselves, he was not being himself. I saw that
all the men in these slums, cadgers, pickpockets, hooligans, are
all, in the deepest sense, trying to be good. And I saw that that
man was trying to be evil."

"But if you never saw him before--" I began.

"In God's name, look at his face," cried out Basil in a voice that
startled the driver. "Look at the eyebrows. They mean that infernal
pride which made Satan so proud that he sneered even at heaven when
he was one of the first angels in it. Look at his moustaches, they
are so grown as to insult humanity. In the name of the sacred
heavens look at his hair. In the name of God and the stars, look at
his hat."

I stirred uncomfortably.

"But, after all," I said, "this is very fanciful--perfectly absurd.
Look at the mere facts. You have never seen the man before, you--"

"Oh, the mere facts," he cried out in a kind of despair. "The mere
facts! Do you really admit--are you still so sunk in superstitions,
so clinging to dim and prehistoric altars, that you believe in
facts? Do you not trust an immediate impression?"

"Well, an immediate impression may be," I said, "a little less
practical than facts."

"Bosh," he said. "On what else is the whole world run but immediate
impressions? What is more practical? My friend, the philosophy of
this world may be founded on facts, its business is run on
spiritual impressions and atmospheres. Why do you refuse or accept
a clerk? Do you measure his skull? Do you read up his physiological
state in a handbook? Do you go upon facts at all? Not a scrap. You
accept a clerk who may save your business--you refuse a clerk that
may rob your till, entirely upon those immediate mystical
impressions under the pressure of which I pronounce, with a perfect
sense of certainty and sincerity, that that man walking in that
street beside us is a humbug and a villain of some kind."

"You always put things well," I said, "but, of course, such things
cannot immediately be put to the test."

Basil sprang up straight and swayed with the swaying car.

"Let us get off and follow him," he said. "I bet you five pounds
it will turn out as I say."

And with a scuttle, a jump, and a run, we were off the car.

The man with the curved silver hair and the curved Eastern face
walked along for some time, his long splendid frock-coat flying
behind him. Then he swung sharply out of the great glaring road
and disappeared down an ill-lit alley. We swung silently after

"This is an odd turning for a man of that kind to take," I said.

"A man of what kind?" asked my friend.

"Well," I said, "a man with that kind of expression and those
boots. I thought it rather odd, to tell the truth, that he should
be in this part of the world at all."

"Ah, yes," said Basil, and said no more.

We tramped on, looking steadily in front of us. The elegant
figure, like the figure of a black swan, was silhouetted suddenly
against the glare of intermittent gaslight and then swallowed
again in night. The intervals between the lights were long, and a
fog was thickening the whole city. Our pace, therefore, had become
swift and mechanical between the lamp-posts; but Basil came to a
standstill suddenly like a reined horse; I stopped also. We had
almost run into the man. A great part of the solid darkness in
front of us was the darkness of his body.

At first I thought he had turned to face us. But though we were
hardly a yard off he did not realize that we were there. He tapped
four times on a very low and dirty door in the dark, crabbed
street. A gleam of gas cut the darkness as it opened slowly. We
listened intently, but the interview was short and simple and
inexplicable as an interview could be. Our exquisite friend handed
in what looked like a paper or a card and said:

"At once. Take a cab."

A heavy, deep voice from inside said:

"Right you are."

And with a click we were in the blackness again, and striding
after the striding stranger through a labyrinth of London lanes,
the lights just helping us. It was only five o'clock, but winter
and the fog had made it like midnight.

"This is really an extraordinary walk for the patent-leather
boots," I repeated.

"I don't know," said Basil humbly. "It leads to Berkeley Square."

As I tramped on I strained my eyes through the dusky atmosphere
and tried to make out the direction described. For some ten
minutes I wondered and doubted; at the end of that I saw that
my friend was right. We were coming to the great dreary spaces
of fashionable London--more dreary, one must admit, even than
the dreary plebeian spaces.

"This is very extraordinary!" said Basil Grant, as we turned into
Berkeley Square.

"What is extraordinary?" I asked. "I thought you said it was quite

"I do not wonder," answered Basil, "at his walking through nasty
streets; I do not wonder at his going to Berkeley Square. But I do
wonder at his going to the house of a very good man."

"What very good man?" I asked with exasperation.

"The operation of time is a singular one," he said with his
imperturbable irrelevancy. "It is not a true statement of the case
to say that I have forgotten my career when I was a judge and a
public man. I remember it all vividly, but it is like remembering
some novel. But fifteen years ago I knew this square as well as
Lord Rosebery does, and a confounded long sight better than that
man who is going up the steps of old Beaumont's house."

"Who is old Beaumont?" I asked irritably.

"A perfectly good fellow. Lord Beaumont of Foxwood--don't you know
his name? He is a man of transparent sincerity, a nobleman who
does more work than a navvy, a socialist, an anarchist, I don't
know what; anyhow, he's a philosopher and philanthropist. I admit
he has the slight disadvantage of being, beyond all question, off
his head. He has that real disadvantage which has arisen out of
the modern worship of progress and novelty; and he thinks anything
odd and new must be an advance. If you went to him and proposed to
eat your grandmother, he would agree with you, so long as you put
it on hygienic and public grounds, as a cheap alternative to
cremation. So long as you progress fast enough it seems a matter
of indifference to him whether you are progressing to the stars or
the devil. So his house is filled with an endless succession of
literary and political fashions; men who wear long hair because it
is romantic; men who wear short hair because it is medical; men
who walk on their feet only to exercise their hands; and men who
walk on their hands for fear of tiring their feet. But though the
inhabitants of his salons are generally fools, like himself, they
are almost always, like himself, good men. I am really surprised
to see a criminal enter there."

"My good fellow," I said firmly, striking my foot on the pavement,
"the truth of this affair is very simple. To use your own eloquent
language, you have the `slight disadvantage' of being off your
head. You see a total stranger in a public street; you choose to
start certain theories about his eyebrows. You then treat him as a
burglar because he enters an honest man's door. The thing is too
monstrous. Admit that it is, Basil, and come home with me. Though
these people are still having tea, yet with the distance we have to
go, we shall be late for dinner."

Basil's eyes were shining in the twilight like lamps.

"I thought," he said, "that I had outlived vanity."

"What do you want now?" I cried.

"I want," he cried out, "what a girl wants when she wears her new
frock; I want what a boy wants when he goes in for a clanging match
with a monitor--I want to show somebody what a fine fellow I am. I
am as right about that man as I am about your having a hat on your
head. You say it cannot be tested. I say it can. I will take you to
see my old friend Beaumont. He is a delightful man to know."

"Do you really mean--?" I began.

"I will apologize," he said calmly, "for our not being dressed
for a call," and walking across the vast misty square, he walked
up the dark stone steps and rang at the bell.

A severe servant in black and white opened the door to us: on
receiving my friend's name his manner passed in a flash from
astonishment to respect. We were ushered into the house very
quickly, but not so quickly but that our host, a white-haired
man with a fiery face, came out quickly to meet us.

"My dear fellow," he cried, shaking Basil's hand again and again,
"I have not seen you for years. Have you been--er--" he said,
rather wildly, "have you been in the country?"

"Not for all that time," answered Basil, smiling. "I have long
given up my official position, my dear Philip, and have been
living in a deliberate retirement. I hope I do not come at an
inopportune moment."

"An inopportune moment," cried the ardent gentleman. "You come at
the most opportune moment I could imagine. Do you know who is

"I do not," answered Grant, with gravity. Even as he spoke a roar
of laughter came from the inner room.

"Basil," said Lord Beaumont solemnly, "I have Wimpole here."

"And who is Wimpole?"

"Basil," cried the other, "you must have been in the country.
You must have been in the antipodes. You must have been in the
moon. Who is Wimpole? Who was Shakespeare?"

"As to who Shakespeare was," answered my friend placidly, "my views
go no further than thinking that he was not Bacon. More probably he
was Mary Queen of Scots. But as to who Wimpole is--" and his speech
also was cloven with a roar of laughter from within.

"Wimpole!" cried Lord Beaumont, in a sort of ecstasy. "Haven't
you heard of the great modern wit? My dear fellow, he has turned
conversation, I do not say into an art--for that, perhaps, it
always was but into a great art, like the statuary of Michael
Angelo--an art of masterpieces. His repartees, my good friend,
startle one like a man shot dead. They are final; they are--"

Again there came the hilarious roar from the room, and almost with
the very noise of it, a big, panting apoplectic old gentleman came
out of the inner house into the hall where we were standing.

"Now, my dear chap," began Lord Beaumont hastily.

"I tell you, Beaumont, I won't stand it," exploded the large old
gentleman. "I won't be made game of by a twopenny literary
adventurer like that. I won't be made a guy. I won't--"

"Come, come," said Beaumont feverishly. "Let me introduce you.
This is Mr Justice Grant--that is, Mr Grant. Basil, I am sure you
have heard of Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh."

"Who has not?" asked Grant, and bowed to the worthy old baronet,
eyeing him with some curiosity. He was hot and heavy in his
momentary anger, but even that could not conceal the noble though
opulent outline of his face and body, the florid white hair, the
Roman nose, the body stalwart though corpulent, the chin
aristocratic though double. He was a magnificent courtly gentleman;
so much of a gentleman that he could show an unquestionable
weakness of anger without altogether losing dignity; so much of a
gentleman that even his faux pas were well-bred.

"I am distressed beyond expression, Beaumont," he said gruffly,
"to fail in respect to these gentlemen, and even more especially
to fail in it in your house. But it is not you or they that are
in any way concerned, but that flashy half-caste jackanapes--"

At this moment a young man with a twist of red moustache and a
sombre air came out of the inner room. He also did not seem to be
greatly enjoying the intellectual banquet within.

"I think you remember my friend and secretary, Mr Drummond," said
Lord Beaumont, turning to Grant, "even if you only remember him as
a schoolboy."

"Perfectly," said the other. Mr Drummond shook hands pleasantly
and respectfully, but the cloud was still on his brow. Turning to
Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh, he said:

"I was sent by Lady Beaumont to express her hope that you were not
going yet, Sir Walter. She says she has scarcely seen anything of

The old gentleman, still red in the face, had a temporary internal
struggle; then his good manners triumphed, and with a gesture of
obeisance and a vague utterance of, "If Lady Beaumont . . . a lady,
of course," he followed the young man back into the salon. He had
scarcely been deposited there half a minute before another peal of
laughter told that he had (in all probability) been scored off

"Of course, I can excuse dear old Cholmondeliegh," said Beaumont,
as he helped us off with our coats. "He has not the modern mind."

"What is the modern mind?" asked Grant.

"Oh, it's enlightened, you know, and progressive--and faces the
facts of life seriously." At this moment another roar of laughter
came from within.

"I only ask," said Basil, "because of the last two friends of yours
who had the modern mind; one thought it wrong to eat fishes and the
other thought it right to eat men. I beg your pardon--this way, if
I remember right."

"Do you know," said Lord Beaumont, with a sort of feverish
entertainment, as he trotted after us towards the interior, "I can
never quite make out which side you are on. Sometimes you seem so
liberal and sometimes so reactionary. Are you a modern, Basil?"

"No," said Basil, loudly and cheerfully, as he entered the crowded

This caused a slight diversion, and some eyes were turned away
from our slim friend with the Oriental face for the first time
that afternoon. Two people, however, still looked at him. One was
the daughter of the house, Muriel Beaumont, who gazed at him with
great violet eyes and with the intense and awful thirst of the
female upper class for verbal amusement and stimulus. The other
was Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh, who looked at him with a still and
sullen but unmistakable desire to throw him out of the window.

He sat there, coiled rather than seated on the easy chair;
everything from the curves of his smooth limbs to the coils of his
silvered hair suggesting the circles of a serpent more than the
straight limbs of a man--the unmistakable, splendid serpentine
gentleman we had seen walking in North London, his eyes shining
with repeated victory.

"What I can't understand, Mr Wimpole," said Muriel Beaumont
eagerly, "is how you contrive to treat all this so easily. You say
things quite philosophical and yet so wildly funny. If I thought
of such things, I'm sure I should laugh outright when the thought
first came."

"I agree with Miss Beaumont," said Sir Walter, suddenly exploding
with indignation. "If I had thought of anything so futile, I should
find it difficult to keep my countenance."

"Difficult to keep your countenance," cried Mr Wimpole, with an air
of alarm; "oh, do keep your countenance! Keep it in the British

Every one laughed uproariously, as they always do at an already
admitted readiness, and Sir Walter, turning suddenly purple,
shouted out:

"Do you know who you are talking to, with your confounded

"I never talk tomfooleries," said the other, "without first knowing
my audience."

Grant walked across the room and tapped the red-moustached
secretary on the shoulder. That gentleman was leaning against the
wall regarding the whole scene with a great deal of gloom; but, I
fancied, with very particular gloom when his eyes fell on the young
lady of the house rapturously listening to Wimpole.

"May I have a word with you outside, Drummond?" asked Grant. "It is
about business. Lady Beaumont will excuse us."

I followed my friend, at his own request, greatly wondering, to
this strange external interview. We passed abruptly into a kind of
side room out of the hall.

"Drummond," said Basil sharply, "there are a great many good
people, and a great many sane people here this afternoon.
Unfortunately, by a kind of coincidence, all the good people are
mad, and all the sane people are wicked. You are the only person I
know of here who is honest and has also some common sense. What do
you make of Wimpole?"

Mr Secretary Drummond had a pale face and red hair; but at this his
face became suddenly as red as his moustache.

"I am not a fair judge of him," he said.

"Why not?" asked Grant.

"Because I hate him like hell," said the other, after a long pause
and violently.

Neither Grant nor I needed to ask the reason; his glances towards
Miss Beaumont and the stranger were sufficiently illuminating.
Grant said quietly:

"But before--before you came to hate him, what did you really think
of him?"

"I am in a terrible difficulty," said the young man, and his voice
told us, like a clear bell, that he was an honest man. "If I spoke
about him as I feel about him now, I could not trust myself. And I
should like to be able to say that when I first saw him I thought
he was charming. But again, the fact is I didn't. I hate him, that
is my private affair. But I also disapprove of him--really I do
believe I disapprove of him quite apart from my private feelings.
When first he came, I admit he was much quieter, but I did not
like, so to speak, the moral swell of him. Then that jolly old Sir
Walter Cholmondeliegh got introduced to us, and this fellow, with
his cheap-jack wit, began to score off the old man in the way he
does now. Then I felt that he must be a bad lot; it must be bad to
fight the old and the kindly. And he fights the poor old chap
savagely, unceasingly, as if he hated old age and kindliness. Take,
if you want it, the evidence of a prejudiced witness. I admit that
I hate the man because a certain person admires him. But I believe
that apart from that I should hate the man because old Sir Walter
hates him."

This speech affected me with a genuine sense of esteem and pity for
the young man; that is, of pity for him because of his obviously
hopeless worship of Miss Beaumont, and of esteem for him because of
the direct realistic account of the history of Wimpole which he had
given. Still, I was sorry that he seemed so steadily set against
the man, and could not help referring it to an instinct of his
personal relations, however nobly disguised from himself.

In the middle of these meditations, Grant whispered in my ear what
was perhaps the most startling of all interruptions.

"In the name of God, let's get away."

I have never known exactly in how odd a way this odd old man
affected me. I only know that for some reason or other he so
affected me that I was, within a few minutes, in the street

"This," he said, "is a beastly but amusing affair."

"What is?" I asked, baldly enough.

"This affair. Listen to me, my old friend. Lord and Lady Beaumont
have just invited you and me to a grand dinner-party this very
night, at which Mr Wimpole will be in all his glory. Well, there
is nothing very extraordinary about that. The extraordinary thing
is that we are not going."

"Well, really," I said, "it is already six o'clock and I doubt if
we could get home and dress. I see nothing extraordinary in the
fact that we are not going."

"Don't you?" said Grant. "I'll bet you'll see something
extraordinary in what we're doing instead."

I looked at him blankly.

"Doing instead?" I asked. "What are we doing instead?"

"Why," said he, "we are waiting for one or two hours outside this
house on a winter evening. You must forgive me; it is all my
vanity. It is only to show you that I am right. Can you, with the
assistance of this cigar, wait until both Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh
and the mystic Wimpole have left this house?"

"Certainly," I said. "But I do not know which is likely to leave
first. Have you any notion?"

"No," he said. "Sir Walter may leave first in a glow of rage. Or
again, Mr Wimpole may leave first, feeling that his last epigram is
a thing to be flung behind him like a firework. And Sir Walter may
remain some time to analyse Mr Wimpole's character. But they will
both have to leave within reasonable time, for they will both have
to get dressed and come back to dinner here tonight."

As he spoke the shrill double whistle from the porch of the great
house drew a dark cab to the dark portal. And then a thing happened
that we really had not expected. Mr Wimpole and Sir Walter
Cholmondeliegh came out at the same moment.

They paused for a second or two opposite each other in a natural
doubt; then a certain geniality, fundamental perhaps in both of
them, made Sir Walter smile and say: "The night is foggy. Pray
take my cab."

Before I could count twenty the cab had gone rattling up the street
with both of them. And before I could count twenty-three Grant had
hissed in my ear:

"Run after the cab; run as if you were running from a mad dog--

We pelted on steadily, keeping the cab in sight, through dark mazy
streets. God only, I thought, knows why we are running at all, but
we are running hard. Fortunately we did not run far. The cab pulled
up at the fork of two streets and Sir Walter paid the cabman, who
drove away rejoicing, having just come in contact with the more
generous among the rich. Then the two men talked together as men do
talk together after giving and receiving great insults, the talk
which leads either to forgiveness or a duel--at least so it seemed
as we watched it from ten yards off. Then the two men shook hands
heartily, and one went down one fork of the road and one down

Basil, with one of his rare gestures, flung his arms forward.

"Run after that scoundrel," he cried; "let us catch him now."

We dashed across the open space and reached the juncture of two paths.

"Stop!" I shouted wildly to Grant. "That's the wrong turning."

He ran on.

"Idiot!" I howled. "Sir Walter's gone down there. Wimpole has
slipped us. He's half a mile down the other road. You're wrong . . .
Are you deaf? You're wrong!"

"I don't think I am," he panted, and ran on.

"But I saw him!" I cried. "Look in front of you. Is that Wimpole?
It's the old man . . . What are you doing? What are we to do?"

"Keep running," said Grant.

Running soon brought us up to the broad back of the pompous old
baronet, whose white whiskers shone silver in the fitful lamplight.
My brain was utterly bewildered. I grasped nothing.

"Charlie," said Basil hoarsely, "can you believe in my common sense
for four minutes?"

"Of course," I said, panting.

"Then help me to catch that man in front and hold him down. Do it
at once when I say `Now'. Now!"

We sprang on Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh, and rolled that portly old
gentleman on his back. He fought with a commendable valour, but we
got him tight. I had not the remotest notion why. He had a splendid
and full-blooded vigour; when he could not box he kicked, and we
bound him; when he could not kick he shouted, and we gagged him.
Then, by Basil's arrangement, we dragged him into a small court by
the street side and waited. As I say, I had no notion why.

"I am sorry to incommode you," said Basil calmly out of the
darkness; "but I have made an appointment here."

"An appointment!" I said blankly.

"Yes," he said, glancing calmly at the apoplectic old aristocrat gagged on the ground, whose eyes were starting impotently from his head. "I have made an appointment here with a thoroughly nice young fellow. An old friend. Jasper Drummond his name is--you may have met him this afternoon at the Beaumonts. He can scarcely come though till the Beaumonts' dinner is over."

For I do not know how many hours we stood there calmly in the darkness. By the time those hours were over I had thoroughly made up my mind that the same thing had happened which had happened long ago on the bench of a British Court of Justice. Basil Grant had gone mad. I could imagine no other explanation of the facts, with the portly, purple-faced old country gentleman flung there strangled on the floor like a bundle of wood.

After about four hours a lean figure in evening dress rushed into
the court. A glimpse of gaslight showed the red moustache and white
face of Jasper Drummond.

"Mr Grant," he said blankly, "the thing is incredible. You were
right; but what did you mean? All through this dinner-party, where
dukes and duchesses and editors of Quarterlies had come especially
to hear him, that extraordinary Wimpole kept perfectly silent. He
didn't say a funny thing. He didn't say anything at all. What does
it mean?"

Grant pointed to the portly old gentleman on the ground.

"That is what it means," he said.

Drummond, on observing a fat gentleman lying so calmly about the
place, jumped back, as from a mouse.

"What?" he said weakly, ". . . what?"

Basil bent suddenly down and tore a paper out of Sir Walter's
breastpocket, a paper which the baronet, even in his hampered
state, seemed to make some effort to retain.

It was a large loose piece of white wrapping paper, which Mr Jasper
Drummond read with a vacant eye and undisguised astonishment. As
far as he could make out, it consisted of a series of questions and
answers, or at least of remarks and replies, arranged in the manner
of a catechism. The greater part of the document had been torn and
obliterated in the struggle, but the termination remained. It ran
as follows:

C. Says . . . Keep countenance.

W. Keep . . . British Museum.

C. Know whom talk . . . absurdities.

W. Never talk absurdities without

"What is it?" cried Drummond, flinging the paper down in a sort of
final fury.

"What is it?" replied Grant, his voice rising into a kind of
splendid chant. "What is it? It is a great new profession. A great
new trade. A trifle immoral, I admit, but still great, like

"A new profession!" said the young man with the red moustache
vaguely; "a new trade!"

"A new trade," repeated Grant, with a strange exultation, "a new
profession! What a pity it is immoral."

"But what the deuce is it?" cried Drummond and I in a breath of

"It is," said Grant calmly, "the great new trade of the Organizer
of Repartee. This fat old gentleman lying on the ground strikes
you, as I have no doubt, as very stupid and very rich. Let me clear
his character. He is, like ourselves, very clever and very poor. He
is also not really at all fat; all that is stuffing. He is not
particularly old, and his name is not Cholmondeliegh. He is a
swindler, and a swindler of a perfectly delightful and novel kind.
He hires himself out at dinner-parties to lead up to other people's
repartees. According to a preconcerted scheme (which you may find
on that piece of paper), he says the stupid things he has arranged
for himself, and his client says the clever things arranged for
him. In short, he allows himself to be scored off for a guinea a

"And this fellow Wimpole--" began Drummond with indignation.

"This fellow Wimpole," said Basil Grant, smiling, "will not be an
intellectual rival in the future. He had some fine things, elegance
and silvered hair, and so on. But the intellect is with our friend
on the floor."

"That fellow," cried Drummond furiously, "that fellow ought to be
in gaol."

"Not at all," said Basil indulgently; "he ought to be in the Club
of Queer Trades."

Chapter 3

The Awful Reason of the Vicar's Visit

The revolt of Matter against Man (which I believe to exist) has now
been reduced to a singular condition. It is the small things rather
than the large things which make war against us and, I may add,
beat us. The bones of the last mammoth have long ago decayed, a
mighty wreck; the tempests no longer devour our navies, nor the
mountains with hearts of fire heap hell over our cities. But we are
engaged in a bitter and eternal war with small things; chiefly with
microbes and with collar studs. The stud with which I was engaged
(on fierce and equal terms) as I made the above reflections, was
one which I was trying to introduce into my shirt collar when a
loud knock came at the door.

My first thought was as to whether Basil Grant had called to fetch
me. He and I were to turn up at the same dinner-party (for which I
was in the act of dressing), and it might be that he had taken it
into his head to come my way, though we had arranged to go
separately. It was a small and confidential affair at the table of
a good but unconventional political lady, an old friend of his. She
had asked us both to meet a third guest, a Captain Fraser, who had
made something of a name and was an authority on chimpanzees. As
Basil was an old friend of the hostess and I had never seen her, I
felt that it was quite possible that he (with his usual social
sagacity) might have decided to take me along in order to break the
ice. The theory, like all my theories, was complete; but as a fact
it was not Basil.

I was handed a visiting card inscribed: "Rev. Ellis Shorter", and
underneath was written in pencil, but in a hand in which even hurry
could not conceal a depressing and gentlemanly excellence, "Asking
the favour of a few moments' conversation on a most urgent

I had already subdued the stud, thereby proclaiming that the image
of God has supremacy over all matters (a valuable truth), and
throwing on my dress-coat and waistcoat, hurried into the
drawing-room. He rose at my entrance, flapping like a seal; I can
use no other description. He flapped a plaid shawl over his right
arm; he flapped a pair of pathetic black gloves; he flapped his
clothes; I may say, without exaggeration, that he flapped his
eyelids, as he rose. He was a bald-browed, white-haired,
white-whiskered old clergyman, of a flappy and floppy type. He

"I am so sorry. I am so very sorry. I am so extremely sorry. I come
--I can only say--I can only say in my defence, that I come--upon
an important matter. Pray forgive me."

I told him I forgave perfectly and waited.

"What I have to say," he said brokenly, "is so dreadful--it is so
dreadful--I have lived a quiet life."

I was burning to get away, for it was already doubtful if I should
be in time for dinner. But there was something about the old man's
honest air of bitterness that seemed to open to me the
possibilities of life larger and more tragic than my own.

I said gently: "Pray go on."

Nevertheless the old gentleman, being a gentleman as well as old,
noticed my secret impatience and seemed still more unmanned.

"I'm so sorry," he said meekly; "I wouldn't have come--but for--
your friend Major Brown recommended me to come here."

"Major Brown!" I said, with some interest.

"Yes," said the Reverend Mr Shorter, feverishly flapping his plaid
shawl about. "He told me you helped him in a great difficulty--and
my difficulty! Oh, my dear sir, it's a matter of life and death."

I rose abruptly, in an acute perplexity. "Will it take long, Mr
Shorter?" I asked. "I have to go out to dinner almost at once."

He rose also, trembling from head to foot, and yet somehow, with
all his moral palsy, he rose to the dignity of his age and his

"I have no right, Mr Swinburne--I have no right at all," he said.
"If you have to go out to dinner, you have of course--a perfect
right--of course a perfect right. But when you come back--a man
will be dead."

And he sat down, quaking like a jelly.

The triviality of the dinner had been in those two minutes dwarfed
and drowned in my mind. I did not want to go and see a political
widow, and a captain who collected apes; I wanted to hear what had
brought this dear, doddering old vicar into relation with immediate

"Will you have a cigar?" I said.

"No, thank you," he said, with indescribable embarrassment, as if
not smoking cigars was a social disgrace.

"A glass of wine?" I said.

"No, thank you, no, thank you; not just now," he repeated with
that hysterical eagerness with which people who do not drink at
all often try to convey that on any other night of the week they
would sit up all night drinking rum-punch. "Not just now, thank

"Nothing else I can get for you?" I said, feeling genuinely sorry
for the well-mannered old donkey. "A cup of tea?"

I saw a struggle in his eye and I conquered. When the cup of tea
came he drank it like a dipsomaniac gulping brandy. Then he fell
back and said:

"I have had such a time, Mr Swinburne. I am not used to these
excitements. As Vicar of Chuntsey, in Essex'--he threw this in
with an indescribable airiness of vanity--'I have never known
such things happen."

"What things happen?" I asked.

He straightened himself with sudden dignity.

"As Vicar of Chuntsey, in Essex," he said, "I have never been
forcibly dressed up as an old woman and made to take part in a
crime in the character of an old woman. Never once. My experience
may be small. It may be insufficient. But it has never occurred
to me before."

"I have never heard of it," I said, "as among the duties of a
clergyman. But I am not well up in church matters. Excuse me if
perhaps I failed to follow you correctly. Dressed up--as what?"

"As an old woman," said the vicar solemnly, "as an old woman."

I thought in my heart that it required no great transformation to
make an old woman of him, but the thing was evidently more tragic
than comic, and I said respectfully:

"May I ask how it occurred?"

"I will begin at the beginning," said Mr Shorter, "and I will tell
my story with the utmost possible precision. At seventeen minutes
past eleven this morning I left the vicarage to keep certain
appointments and pay certain visits in the village. My first visit
was to Mr Jervis, the treasurer of our League of Christian
Amusements, with whom I concluded some business touching the claim
made by Parkes the gardener in the matter of the rolling of our
tennis lawn. I then visited Mrs Arnett, a very earnest
churchwoman, but permanently bedridden. She is the author of
several small works of devotion, and of a book of verse, entitled
(unless my memory misleads me) Eglantine."

He uttered all this not only with deliberation, but with something
that can only be called, by a contradictory phrase, eager
deliberation. He had, I think, a vague memory in his head of the
detectives in the detective stories, who always sternly require
that nothing should be kept back.

"I then proceeded," he went on, with the same maddening
conscientiousness of manner, "to Mr Carr (not Mr James Carr, of
course; Mr Robert Carr) who is temporarily assisting our organist,
and having consulted with him (on the subject of a choir boy who
is accused, I cannot as yet say whether justly or not, of cutting
holes in the organ pipes), I finally dropped in upon a Dorcas
meeting at the house of Miss Brett. The Dorcas meetings are
usually held at the vicarage, but my wife being unwell, Miss
Brett, a newcomer in our village, but very active in church work,
had very kindly consented to hold them. The Dorcas society is
entirely under my wife's management as a rule, and except for Miss
Brett, who, as I say, is very active, I scarcely know any members
of it. I had, however, promised to drop in on them, and I did so.

"When I arrived there were only four other maiden ladies with Miss
Brett, but they were sewing very busily. It is very difficult, of
course, for any person, however strongly impressed with the
necessity in these matters of full and exact exposition of the
facts, to remember and repeat the actual details of a
conversation, particularly a conversation which (though inspired
with a most worthy and admirable zeal for good work) was one which
did not greatly impress the hearer's mind at the time and was in
fact--er--mostly about socks. I can, however, remember distinctly
that one of the spinster ladies (she was a thin person with a
woollen shawl, who appeared to feel the cold, and I am almost sure
she was introduced to me as Miss James) remarked that the weather
was very changeable. Miss Brett then offered me a cup of tea,
which I accepted, I cannot recall in what words. Miss Brett is a
short and stout lady with white hair. The only other figure in the
group that caught my attention was a Miss Mowbray, a small and
neat lady of aristocratic manners, silver hair, and a high voice
and colour. She was the most emphatic member of the party; and her
views on the subject of pinafores, though expressed with a natural
deference to myself, were in themselves strong and advanced.
Beside her (although all five ladies were dressed simply in black)
it could not be denied that the others looked in some way what you
men of the world would call dowdy.

"After about ten minutes' conversation I rose to go, and as I did
so I heard something which--I cannot describe it--something which
seemed to--but I really cannot describe it."

"What did you hear?" I asked, with some impatience.

"I heard," said the vicar solemnly, "I heard Miss Mowbray (the
lady with the silver hair) say to Miss James (the lady with the
woollen shawl), the following extraordinary words. I committed
them to memory on the spot, and as soon as circumstances set me
free to do so, I noted them down on a piece of paper. I believe I
have it here." He fumbled in his breast-pocket, bringing out mild
things, note-books, circulars and programmes of village concerts.
"I heard Miss Mowbray say to Miss James, the following words:
`Now's your time, Bill.'"

He gazed at me for a few moments after making this announcement,
gravely and unflinchingly, as if conscious that here he was
unshaken about his facts. Then he resumed, turning his bald head
more towards the fire.

"This appeared to me remarkable. I could not by any means
understand it. It seemed to me first of all peculiar that one
maiden lady should address another maiden lady as `Bill'. My
experience, as I have said, may be incomplete; maiden ladies may
have among themselves and in exclusively spinster circles wilder
customs than I am aware of. But it seemed to me odd, and I could
almost have sworn (if you will not misunderstand the phrase), I
should have been strongly impelled to maintain at the time that
the words, `Now's your time, Bill', were by no means pronounced
with that upper-class intonation which, as I have already said,
had up to now characterized Miss Mowbray's conversation. In fact,
the words, `Now's your time, Bill', would have been, I fancy,
unsuitable if pronounced with that upper-class intonation.

"I was surprised, I repeat, then, at the remark. But I was still
more surprised when, looking round me in bewilderment, my hat and
umbrella in hand, I saw the lean lady with the woollen shawl
leaning upright against the door out of which I was just about to
make my exit. She was still knitting, and I supposed that this

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